KXAN Report: Mansion Fire Intentionally Set
Sun June 8, 2008 1:25 pm

From the TV station's web site:

AUSTIN, TEXAS (KXAN)--The Texas Fire Marshall's Office says it has evidence that arson may be the cause of an overnight fire which has gutted the state's Governor's Office.
[Say what? You would think that a news operation would know the difference between the governor's office and the Governor's Mansion.] Paul Maldanado from the state Fire Marshall's Office says agency is reviewing eyewitness reports and surveillance video. Maldanado says there is "evidence that somebody was here" and possibly started the fire, but declined to offer any further details.

"We're going to get the person responsible for causing this damage," Maldanado said.

The smell of heavy smoke blankets downtown Austin, TX as firefighters manage hot-spots from a fire that has completely gutted the Governor's Mansion.

Dawn Clopton from the Austin Fire Department reports that the main fire is now officially out, and that a "good part of the structure is left." The roof of the mansion's second story has partially collapsed, so Austin firefighters are working with structural engineers in order to gain safe access inside the structure. Fire crews are also working with the state preservation office in order to salvage as much of the historic Greek Revival style structure as possible.

Here is my question about this story: Where was the DPS? They have offices in the small building behind the Mansion. Are those offices occupied while the governor and his family are living elsewhere? Are troopers on duty around the clock? Arsonists are drawn to high-profile empty buildings. What is the level of security on the grounds? These are important questions that the governor's office needs to answer as soon as possible.

Now, here's some information about the Mansion courtesy of Marilyn Schwartz, Babe's wife, who serves as a docent at the Mansion [11:50 a.m.] She told me that she had viewed the site from the roof of the Westgate, where the Schwartzes live, and much of the roof could be salvaged. However, firemen are still trying to put out hot spots. She awoke in the middle of the night to the smell of smoke, thinking that her own building might be on fire, but her grandson, who is staying with them, came in and said that the Mansion was burning.

She told me that all of the furnishings and official items had been removed for the $10 million renovation, and also the window casements. Everything of historical interest, including the wallpaper, had been carefully documented for the previous restoration in 1979 during Bill Clements' first term. At that time, fire alarms were installed, but the lack of a sprinkler system was one of the principal reasons for the current makeover.

The fire may rekindle a longstanding discussion about whether the Mansion should be used as a museum and for state functions by the governor, and the governor and his family should have their own residence. The Mansion is really not suitable for family life. The living quarters are tiny; most of the space upstairs is taken up by the state bedrooms named for Sam Houston and Elisha Pease. Having the governor live elsewhere would not sit well with former governor Preston Smith (served 1969-1973), who, according to Marilyn, liked to say that if a governor didn't want to live in the mansion, he shouldn't run for the job.

The rebuilding of the mansion is sure to be a costly undertaking, and the question arises whether the Legislature will pay for it. For the 1979 renovation, the Legislature appropriated $1 million, which wouldn't go very far today, and the Friends of the Governor's Mansion, started by First Lady Rita Clements, raised $3 million. I vaguely recall that some Democrats objected to the Clements' benefiting from private donations, much as some D's objected to the recent renovation of the speaker's office.

I have not spent a lot of time in the Mansion. Ann Richards was unhappy with a column I wrote defending the Sunset process--she thought it was a great big Christmas tree for the lobby, imagine that--and summoned me for lunch, after which I said to her that I was relieved to find that I was the guest rather than the entree. During the Richards governorship, I would take my kids to the annual Christmas party for the media, where Ann (and the children in attendance) would do the hokey-pokey and turn themselves about. In George W. Bush's first term, he had to cancel an interview and rescheduled it as a dinner at the Mansion to which my wife was invited as well. It was at once nice of him, and clever, for who can behave like a boorish reporter in front of his spouse? At some point the talk turned to Ross Perot, and I mentioned that I thought he had gone around the bend when he accused the Republicans of trying to ruin his daughter's wedding. "Not the Republicans," Laura said. "Us. The Bushes." I was struck by her strong identification with the Bush clan. The twins were thirteen, and she went upstairs to say good night to them. When she returned, she was barefoot. It impressed Sarah and me that Laura had the confidence to be slipperless in the presence of guests. Bush's last Christmas party was on his last night as governor; he was leaving for Washington the next day. I had stopped attending the media party by that time, as the Capitol Press Corps was dwindling and a lot of my favorite people had moved on, but nobody missed that affair, not even the technicians for the networks whose satellite trucks had occupied the parking lots for five weeks. I didn't either, but it was my last one. I don't even know if the tradition is still going on, but if it is, here's my RSVP for the party after the Mansion is rebuilt.

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